Doktorväter: A Memoir

Stefania R. Jha

I was very fortunate to do my doctoral studies before the last golden age of scholarship faded at the turn of this century. During these years Harvard's presidents had as guiding principles a respect for ethics, a no-nonsense attitude, and did not follow “political correctness.”

My best professors, my Doktorväter, shared this belief: people who do not value trained intelligence and an ethical standard are doomed.

It is an interesting fact that almost all of this small group of professors were either refugees or immigrants (or immediate descendants of people) from war-torn Europe. In retrospect, I believe that their worldviews, their interdisciplinary interests, humanitarian stance, and willingness to mentor earnest students grew out of such a background. Although they did not know it, I recognized their outlook from my similar history.

As a fifty-year-old former science teacher and potential doctoral applicant, I asked to meet a philosopher of science whose books I read with great interest. In a long interview he asked me what I expected to find in my studies, what my various interests were, and how I came to pursue those. He found out that my formal education has been discontinuous during my migration around the globe and that I was mostly self-taught in various areas. He agreed to sponsor my application. When the admissions committee rejected my application, he advocated for this unorthodox candidate. He opened up the world of formal scholarship to me.

His first piece of advice was: “Do not sit quietly. Question authoritative statements, challenge positions which do not make sense to you.” This first Doktorväter was educated as a psychologist, then as a rabbi, followed by training in philosophy. Most of his teachers were creative spirits who immigrated to New York in the first half of the twentieth century. True to character, he did not assign me a research topic, but asked me to find a question with a potential of long-term interest to me. I chose scientific creativity, which has fascinated me for many years.

And so, my group of interdisciplinary Doktorväter grew, encompassing the philosophy of mind, history and philosophy of scientific thinking and inquiry, following themes in physics, mathematics, chemistry, and medicine, examining the social and ethical context of science in the West as well as in Russia. This group of Doktorväter had firsthand knowledge as practitioners of their respective fields and a long view as historian-philosophers examining their mentors’ work in the context of their field’s development. They willingly shared their experience, knowledge, and anecdotes about their mentors, discussed our papers at length, gave us advice about the best research institutes, showed special collections in libraries, and taught about people for our growth. Informal talks and anecdotes about their mentors brought their own process of learning alive for me—whether the stories were about a demanding teacher, a rocky road of study, or a political circumstance. I was inspired by these examples of personal experience and determined to pass it on.

It would be difficult to decide which of the five Doktorväter were most influential in my development as a scholar—they all contributed in various ways by their example of humanity, exacting scholarly and ethical standards, and generosity. None asked what I intend to do with my degree. It was taken for granted that study is a lifelong process, as is mentoring, for the betterment of society.

Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

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